Anthony Hecht by Daniel Anderson

BOMB 62 Winter 1998
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Anthony Hecht. Photo by Michael J. Germana. Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf.

In 1967 Anthony Hecht won the Pulitzer Prize for his second book of poems, The Hard Hours, thirteen years after he published his very first collection, A Summoning of Stones. The time that passed between these two books seems to be emblematic of something quite remarkable in the career of one of our country’s most notable literary figures. There is a chilling patience in the poetry of Anthony Hecht that reminds us, over and over again, “(He) is an artisan; take note of (him).”

It is fitting, then, that in his latest collection, this poet should assume the most preserving and patient voice of all, the voice of Death. In Flight Among the Tombs, which appeared last fall from Knopf, the first of the book’s two sections is a sequence of poems accompanied by engravings of the artist Leonard Baskin, in which the poet cloaks the Grim Reaper himself in a number of incarnations; Death becomes a society lady, a knight, a Mexican revolutionary, a film director, and, of course, a poet, to name a few.

We first met Anthony Hecht six years ago at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which is held annually at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. We had a chance to visit with him again this past July, one morning at Rebel’s Rest, the university’s guest house which serves as late-night gathering place for the conference’s faculty and participants.

Daniel Anderson In your latest book, Flight Among the Tombs, the first section, “Presumptions of Death” is accompanied by engravings by the artist Leonard Baskin. Could you talk about your relationship with Baskin and how this recent collaboration occurred?

Anthony Hecht Yes, easy. I went to teach at Smith College in 1956, and Baskin was a member of the faculty. At that time, he was married to a wonderful woman named Esther who was dying, by excruciating degrees, of multiple sclerosis. Esther was gradually losing her ability to move and, toward the end, even to speak. I used to go and visit very often. During this time, Leonard was preoccupied with his wife’s illness, but he was also very industrious and working very hard doing both sculptures and woodcuts on a theme that had to do with death. He was understandably preoccupied with the subject. When Esther was able to, she was still writing books for him. One of them was called Night Creatures, a book about gloomy hauntings. Leonard proposed that he and I collaborate on a book, which eventually was called The Seven Deadly Sins. Esther died. Many years later, Leonard remarried, and it was many years later that he wrote to me proposing that we work together on another book, but this one a much more extravagant book called The Presumptions of Death. It would be modeled on the medieval Dance of Death. He would propose some subjects, and I could propose any I wished. It would then be done in an extraordinary luxurious edition that his press, the Gehenna Press, would issue in sixty copies. The first section of Flight Among the Tombs is from this limited edition.

Philip Stephens What did you find most compelling about your collaboration?

AH The project intrigued me because part of my problem was to find a new way to deal with an old, almost shopworn topic. Instead of the old medieval tradition in which Death comes and announces himself and says he wants to dance with people from all stations and levels of society, in our sequence, at a certain point, he adopts the identity of other people. So this gave me a chance to write dramatic monologues of one sort or another. Death becomes a society lady, or an archbishop, or a Mexican revolutionary, or whatever it may be.

DA Could you say something about the difficulties in writing the elegies for James Merrill and Joseph Brodsky, as opposed to, say, writing the ballade, “Death the Poet,” which employs the Latin refrain that translates into, “And now I sleep in the dust”?

AH The problems are different. The problems have to do with something intimate about human relations. I felt an obligation to write both poems. In the case of Brodsky, I think I’d just finished reading a lot of his poetry all over again. There were things about his style that seemed to me decidedly individual. One of my purposes in writing the poem was to take over images of his, themes, and allegorical methods. Much more than any contemporary poet I can think of, he plays with metaphors of time and space, often conjoined to one another, or acting separately. So I wanted to write a poem that employed these details. His own life presented, of course, a tremendous sort of drama, as did his death. In a way, the same thing was true of Merrill who died almost mysteriously. He clearly must have known it was coming. What he did was a courageous thing, going off with a friend, but no one else, and no one else quite knew where he was. He lived in Arizona, I believe, very quietly and ceased correspondence with everyone. Then every once in a while a little news would trickle out that he was not feeling very well, but no one quite knew what the problem was. Some moot indecisive diagnosis was presented when it turned out that he had died. It was a liver infection or something of that sort. But it was all done at a sort of careful remove from everyone who knew him. It was a very remarkable death. And I wanted to give a sense of the mystery of his passing and to contrast that with the extraordinary liveliness of the man when he was alive. He was absolutely brilliant and entertaining, a man of enormous and limitless charm and vitality, and so he, as it were, shrouded himself in great distance. So those were my motives which were altogether different from trying to write a sestina or a ballade or something of that sort.

PS Were there other incarnations of death that you wanted to explore that didn’t make it into the book?

AH No. I don’t think so. There’s a wonderful poem by William Empson called “Ignorance of Death.” It is a very funny poem, and he confesses that he doesn’t know anything about death and no one else does either. He ends by saying, “While I think it’s a perfectly legitimate subject to bring up, I think everybody ought to be very brief about it.” I’m 74 now, and I was only a year younger when I was writing this book. At that age, one begins to notice that there are poets who have lived that long (and indeed even longer) like Thomas Hardy, Sophocles, and others; but you sense your own age and mortality, and you sense it even more if, like me, you have grown-up children. My youngest son is now 25 years old, and I have grandchildren. I don’t want to write about the subject indefinitely. I suppose my poems will have that edge of mortality that creeps in, even when I’m not writing specifically about death. I think they appear in Danny’s (Anderson) first book, and he’s a young man who has just begun publishing. So it’s not a subject one can deliberately avoid.

PS You once wrote that “Imagination these days seems to belong entirely to the realm of prose,” indicating that, while novelists invent, contemporary poets revel in their selves and wallow in their narcissism. You’ve avoided that, of course. Has that been an overtly conscious decision for you?

AH It is a conscious decision. What I was saying was intended slightly ironically, because it’s not that poets think of themselves as privileged to be narcissistic, but in fact, the public and critics have come to expect this of them. There is the whole Whitman tradition, and Allen Ginsberg is part of it, and a few others are too. The names could be rolled off at great length. The truth is that novelists are never blamed, or very rarely blamed, for not being able to create a bunch of characters who are different from themselves. Too often, it’s supposed that poets simply can’t do this, that their imagination is limited in some way, or that they’re too self-obsessed. I think that this is something that poetry has to break away from. It has to embrace much wider fields of imagination than it would if it were concerned entirely with the psychic life of the poet.

DA You once wrote about “freeing yourself from the tyranny of self-absorption” by writing in the voices of others. As a poet who relies on historical information and context, do you think that a sense of history in poetry is falling prey to narcissistic trends?

AH There are certain poets, whose work I like, who seem to agree with me. One of the chief and best of them now is Richard Howard, who delights in writing poems in the voice of actual historical persons in the past, sometimes as dialogues. He had a book called Two Part Inventions in which people out of the past converse with one another. Never does Richard Howard per se appear in the book. The latest poem of his that I admire without stint came out a couple of years ago. It was an answer to Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in which the employee of the duke, whose daughter is being considered as a possible match, works out a tricky way of allowing his daughter to marry this very rich man; he saves her neck by a cunning device. It’s a very brilliant tour de force of a poem and very skillfully done. That’s the sort of poetry I like very much. The poetry of Merrill, Wilbur, Brodsky, Derek Walcott. These are people who don’t rely simply on their own private experience. They are able to imagine large, really rich realms of alternative life. That’s why Walcott was able to even think of writing a kind of parallel to the Odyssey.

PS Of course, the personal is always going to play a part in the process. How personal to you is the suffering your fictive characters endure?

AH Oh, probably very personal. You remember that famous declaration by Flaubert: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” He wasn’t speaking as a suppressed homosexual. He was saying he knew and felt everything that she went through. They couldn’t have been more different. I mean, he got the nugget of the story out of a tiny item in a French newspaper that said this woman had committed suicide, having had an extramarital affair. That was it. He didn’t know anything about her. She was not a well-educated woman. The whole thing was a creation of his own imagination, but clearly something that was deeply personal as well. I think that’s got to be true of any poem by any writer. There’s a great investment of your own feeling and understanding and compassion—and sometimes detestation.

DA Your work is driven, in large part, by observation, and you have referred to yourself as a poet of stasis, which sometimes culminates in a graphic poetry that is both gorgeous and horrific. How do you navigate the boundaries of necessary description and dramatic movement?

AH I think what I’ve been trying to do is juggle two things that are not necessarily connected, or not normally connected. One of them is my conviction that a poem is a mini-drama, or a potential drama, something which has dramatic elements in it. The poetry I like has been poetry that has that dramatic character. At the same time, I have also tried consciously to present as decisively accurate a description as I can of objects in the world. To do that, at least in my limited way, I take something which is static. Even if it’s a creature in motion, I can catch it only in a certain instant. One of the qualities I admire so much in the poetry of Dick Wilbur is that he’s wonderfully able to describe things in actual passage. I’m less able to do that; it’s something I wish I could do. I’ve tried to give very accurate detail to pictures of things, as Elizabeth Bishop does, for example. I admire that in her, and I’ve tried to learn from her in doing something the same. Now that ambition is static, and the dramatic one is not, or is implicitly not static. Part of my problem in poetry is to try to combine these in ways that make for an interesting poem.

PS Do you feel or did you feel that fiction can accomplish things poetry cannot?

AH One of the reasons people like biographies is so they can read about people who are wholly different from themselves. Good fiction can do very much the same thing—introduce you, not to one chief character of a biography, but to a whole bunch of additional minor types that would probably crop up in a biography as well, but each one in a work of fiction would have his or her own imaginative life of great weight and importance. Poetry, being normally short, cannot deal with too many lives at once, but at least it can present a variety of characters in different situations and different dramatic circumstances, and not relapse supinely into self-contemplation. That I find irritating. I can’t tell you how much I admire fiction writers and novelists, precisely because of the amplitude of their imagination. They can create not only a whole bunch of characters, but sometimes several plots that intermingle, that go on all at the same time. I should say, on the other hand, that writing poetry is not an easy task, and when it’s done skillfully it commands my unlimited respect. I remember sitting once on a literary jury at which prizes were being dealt out in a very limited number, and we had to be very cautious about who got them. They were to be given in four categories: drama, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. We narrowed down these considerably large lists to a very few candidates, except in the realm of poetry. I wasn’t the only poet on the board, but I was maybe the senior one. Someone said, “You have an awful lot of poets still on the list.” I said, “Yes. That’s true, alas, but the fact is that there are so many good ones.” A lady who was on the board said, “Perhaps that’s because it’s so much easier to write than fiction.” I was very angry that she said this. I found it very condescending. But as time has gone on, I’ve gotten to feel that there’s some justice in what she said. It’s not that poetry is easy, but there’s enormous ambition and imaginative strength in a large work of fiction.

PS You write both lyric and narrative poems, both of which require a certain amount of ambition and imaginative strength. Are there certain difficulties inherent in writing both kinds of poems?

AH They present different problems. In a narrative poem, often I am trying to establish a speaking voice, so it’s got to be moderately colloquial. That in itself governs a lot of topics, such as grammar and syntax, but it also has to do with whether you use rhymes or not. My narrative poems are generally in blank verse, one of the most flexible kinds; it allows a speaker to wander in his thoughts and to be familiar and easy. A lyric poem, because of its technical formality, can permit all kinds of rearrangements and extended sentences and complicated syntax, ways in which no one would ever talk, but you don’t expect that in a lyric. I’ve found that, for example, Robert Frost’s poetry tends to be very close to the spoken voice, even when it’s lyric. Take that extraordinary poem of his, “The Silken Tent,” which is a sonnet. It’s a sonnet that is exactly one sentence long from beginning to end. Very few people talk straight for 14 lines in a single metaphor that runs from beginning to end and then accommodates the rhyme pattern of a sonnet. Yet at the same time, except for a few archaisms, by which he’s very clearly trying to show that he’s using a medieval metaphor, he doesn’t depart very far from his New England speech. But most lyrics try very consciously to keep ordinary speech at a distance. I think of, for example, the lyrics of Gerard Manley Hopkins. No one would ever say: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding/ High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing/ In his ecstasy!”

PS You were in the infantry in Europe in World War II and present for the liberation of Flossenburg. Unlike other writers, you have not written of your experiences overtly. Could you talk about how you feel your own war experiences manifest in your poems, either directly or indirectly?

AH As you know, there are an awful lot of people, even my age, who were not in the war. They were not qualified for military service. My brother was one of these. For them, there was a certain amount of automatic guilt in not having to go through the test of war. One also feels guilty if one is, as I was, an unscathed survivor. I was in combat, and I saw a lot of the awfulness of war, but I didn’t suffer in any physical way. I wasn’t even grazed by a bullet, though lots of people in my company were killed and wounded. At the same time, I saw one of the concentration camps, but neither I, nor, so far as I know, any member of my family was killed in one, or survived one. And there’s a certain amount of guilt attached to that, too. It’s very difficult under these circumstances to know how much you can morally write about the war because you emerge from it comparatively smoothly. It was a horrible experience, of course. But one feels that people like Elie Wiesel have a kind of singular title to write with authority on subjects about which I can’t write with the same confidence and same moral right. So I’ve been reluctant to write about it. As far as other poems of the war, the best ones I can think of are poems not about actual combat, but about training, like the poems of Henry Reed—”Judging Distances,” and things like that. There are very few poems about World War II I think of as being interesting or exciting. T.S. Eliot in The Quartets has a passage about the bombing of London where he was an air raid warden or fire warden. There was one poem by Dylan Thomas about a young girl killed by a bomb. There’s a very bad poem by Edith Sitwell, and I was not interested in James Dickey’s poems about firebombing. There’s not a great deal of poetry of interest about World War II.

PS The language, diction, and syntax of Shakespeare and the King James version of the Bible are all found in your poetry. What do you think is gained by combining that diction with contemporary, often disturbing subject matter?

AH You’re right, certainly, in pointing out my indebtedness to both Shakespeare and the King James Bible. The parts of the Bible that are especially resonant to me and that I assume resonate for many other people as well, carry an enormous kind of authority and power, not authority as truth but authority as a vital kind of language. So does much of Shakespeare, and I taught Shakespeare most of my life.

I’ve found it useful to try to interweave these dictions into poems of my own, sometimes for amusing and ironic purposes. I think today, in fact, I’m going to read “The Ghost in the Martini,” which is full of quotations from Shakespeare and the Bible and Milton, too, because these juxtapose themselves ironically against the cocktail chatter. But every once in a while one resorts to them because one wants the reader suddenly to expand his own sense of the significance of what’s being said. When the reader recalls that something was once said by Job or by Christ or by Henry V, suddenly the poem ceases to be the parochial concern of the poet and becomes something more universal. It enlarges its own dimensions in this way.

PS John Hollander said that he first met you at a party when you were playing the piano. Could you talk about your musical background? And, though meter in music and meter in poetry are disparate, I wonder if you could talk a little about what you feel are the differences and similarities between the music of poetry and music in general.

AH I’m pleased that Hollander mentioned this memory of his. Music was the first thing I felt I had a skill for. I actually began as a voice major in college, singing. One of the things the Army did was teach me to smoke and ruin my voice. When I came to poetry, I was interested in its musical components. I was interested in song, the texts for songs, the words that were set to music, and how music did what it did to words, which was certainly different from the way the words appeared flat on the page or when they were recited. This was one of my first interests. The first kind of poetry I wrote, which was not good, was one entirely concerned with acoustical effects; it was trying, in fact, to describe the way a military band sounds, or something of that sort. I was envious of some of the things that a composer can do, which a writer never can: having two things or more go on simultaneously in an intelligible way, for example. It took a long time for me to suppress that instinct and that taste of mine because it militated against the thing that we were talking about earlier: the capacity to see something with a kind of accuracy and precision, which had nothing to do with anything that had musical content in it. I realized at a certain point in my career that my musical tastes were drowning out visual things. I was too conscious of musical effects to the detriment of my poetry; I deliberately tried to avoid that and started concentrating on visual details, which is not to say that you can’t have both. A poet like Elizabeth Bishop, for example, who is brilliantly accurate about what she sees, had musical tastes not unlike my own. She played the harpsichord. In fact, late in her life she sold her harpsichord to Howard Moss, who was the poetry editor of The New Yorker. She studied with the great harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick. It’s not wrong to have both tastes, but it’s sometimes difficult to keep them balanced in their effects on a poem.

PS How did your interest in poetry first manifest? How would you assess the changes your poetry has undergone?

AH My interest was really prompted after going to Kenyon because I studied with John Crowe Ransom. Ransom was a poet and a teacher and a critic. I admired him and thought I’d like to try my hand at poetry. Indeed, my earliest poems are very obvious homages to Ransom. They sound like him, embarrassingly so. So that accounts for the beginning. It’s very difficult to describe one’s development. It’s like saying, “Look in the mirror and tell me what you see.” Self-appraisal is an extremely difficult thing to be objective about. I can say this: I think my poems have become more ambitious as time has gone on. They’ve become longer, among other things. I’ve tried more diverse subjects than I did at the beginning. In my first books there were some really unsuccessful war poems. They were unsuccessful because I had not been able to distance myself enough from the war, and my fear of being too personal led me to be almost frivolous about the war and its terror. I know that I’ve been able to be a little more direct, express feelings with less embarrassment and less awkward posturing than I did when I was a young poet. I think I’ve grown in a certain way in poetry as one grows emotionally as a human being.

DA You mention Ransom, and in the past you have mentioned Auden as a mentor. What have been some of the challenges you’ve experienced in mentoring young poets?

AH Well, I think there are a lot of potentially good young poets who would not be able to profit from anything that I could tell them, nor be interested in hearing anything I had to say about their work. They would be temperamentally so different from me that we would be speaking on different wavelengths, however well-intentioned. I’m pleased to think there have been quite a number of good young poets whose work I greatly admired and to whom I’ve volunteered some comments and who’ve thought the comments useful. That, really, is a mysterious process. Like any kind of intimacy, it’s predicated on a kind of tacit understanding. It doesn’t mean I’m always right about everybody’s poetry, however. And so, when you come here to Sewanee, for example, and teach a workshop, it’s best for the teacher to be very tentative in his judgments because he may simply fail to see something which is there and of real value. I think, on the other hand, one knows often enough that people come bearing their work, not in search of advice, but only in search of praise. This, of course, makes for an impossible situation because you don’t know how you can ever fulfill the expectations of certain students.

PS In your elegy for L.E. Sissman, you mention pop and pop-fly poets. In each generation there are those, along with various trends and fashions, who fall by the wayside. What sort of movements do you suppose will stand or fall?

AH One looks back on the past to see how often poets of major stature went unrecognized. Emily Dickinson was not even known but to a handful of people in her own day; people failed to see her genius. This subject came up at breakfast this morning. It seems to me that if you look back at the files of the little magazines at the turn of the century, Transitions, for example, Hound and Horn, you will find the work of the really important new writers of the time, like James Joyce and Hart Crane. Interlarded with them are people you have never heard of and you will never hear of again. But they looked as though they were marvelously experimental and modernist and innovative, with all the latest decorative signs of modernity: fancy typesetting and that sort of stuff. Very often even the astute editors of these journals were unable to tell the difference, it seemed. They recognized the good stuff, but they also recognized the bad stuff. It takes time to sort out the good and the bad, and you can’t always do this with your contemporaries. A conversation I was having at breakfast had to do with whether it was a valuable thing to write negative reviews when something really crappy was published. I remember quoting an observation of Auden’s that this was totally unnecessary because the bad would eventually sift itself out. The bad would wither and disappear. No one had to worry about it. Nobody still reads the rotten poems of the 19th century. You don’t have to anymore. Auden said, moreover, that this was his reason for only reviewing works that he liked, and he made it a practice after a certain point in his life to do that. I find there’s a kind of admirable morality to that. I’m not somebody who has an earnest, desperate need to take a position on anything except in so far as the one thing we talked about almost at the beginning: trying to enlarge the space that poetry ought to have, and its capacity to speak in several voices and different points of view, and not become the single voice of the poet himself.

Daniel Anderson’s first collection of poetry, January Rain, was recently published by Story Line Press. His poems have appeared in the New RepublicPoetry, and Southwest Review.

Philip Stephens is a freelance writer in Kansas City. His poems have appeared in AgniSouthwest ReviewThe Formalist, and The Journal among other place. 

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BOMB 62, Winter 1998

Featuring interviews with Elizabeth Murray, Kerry James Marshall, Anthony Hecht, Michael Winterbottom, Liza Bear, Wong Kar-Wai, Olu Dara, Martin Sherman, and Philip Kan Gotanda. 

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